Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Of storks, roofs, and wheels

Well hello, dear reader. I barely noticed that it's been a week since my last post. I've been busy reading. And I've been reading a lot of non-contemporary fiction lately. I'm not so sure if I can call these books classics, but they certainly impart a wonderful reading experience once you get through with them. Now I know why Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, and Henry James remain unparalleled, why their works have been repeatedly called classics.

And so I've decided to check out classic children's books as well. One lazy Sunday afternoon, I read Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School, which won the Newbery prize in 1955. The illustrations were done by Maurice Sendak, he of the Where the Wild Things Are fame. This book certainly has an amazing pedigree.

Charmingthat's one word to describe The Wheel on the School. DeJong, being of Dutch descent, naturally set this book in a little Dutch fishing village called Shora. Now Shora is like your typical small village: all the residents know one another, there's just one school in the village, preoccupied with the simple details of day-to-day living. If such a town existed here in the Philippines, tell me and I'll happily relocate.

The names of the children of Shora just roll off your tongue pleasantlyEelka, Jella, Auka, Pier, Dirk, and Lina, the only girl in the group. But it's Lina who sets off the events in The Wheel on the School, for she has observed that storks have never been known to visit Shora, even though they have been seen to nest in the neighboring villages. Then she finds out that, many years before, storks did indeed make a stop to Shora and built their nests on top of people's roofs.

Of course, Lina's Shora is now different. For one, there are no trees to incite the storks. Another, their roofs are just too sharply sloped. Then with the help of their teacher, they come to the conclusion that what they would need are wheels perched on top of the roofs for the storks to use as their nests. The problem now is where they can get this wheel.

The Wheel on the School definitely leads to the idea that children, guided by responsible adults and motivated by something concrete (in this case, seeing the birds back in their village), can accomplish a task that may seem extraordinary. DeJong emphasizes the importance of teamwork and learning to look beyond the facade. The boy who seems fragile because of his small frame is discovered to be very resilient. The village grouch is actually someone who's sensitive and revels in the presence of children.

There's a strong Dutch flavor to The Wheel on the School. Children still wear those wooden shoes. (All the time this bit was mentioned, I kept thinking how uncomfortable they must be. But hey, I have big, oddly shaped feet.) The dike is a constant presence. The children's fathers are all fishermen, out to sea for weeks at a time. DeJong's depiction of Dutch village life in the 1950s will fascinate even the readers of today.

While there are stereotypes present in the novel and parts of the story fall continually into a tableau, I enjoyed this children's book. DeJong's story line is very linear. I had fun reading the adventures of each of the 5 children as they exert all efforts to find a suitable wheel. Lina may have started the story, but DeJong managed to shine the spotlight on all 5 children albeit unequally.

Next time I find myself in a bookstore, I'll happily hunt for DeJong's other works. And I'll check out other authors of classic children's books too.

Read this book if:

  1. You love classic children's books.
  2. You'll read anything that's won the Newbery.
  3. You've imagined yourself wearing those Dutch wooden shoes.


Stepford Mum said...

This story sounds charming! My best read last summer was Eva Ibbotson's A Song for Summer, where the protagonist also wanted to bring storks back to the school she taught at by putting a wheel on the roof.

Peter S. said...

Hello, Stepford Mum! It is! Oh, that story is too similar with DeJong's! I'll check it out.